Squash is one of the most versatile and delicious vegetables available throughout the world, and it also packs a serious punch in terms of healthy, medicinal benefits. Different varieties of squash have the ability to improve the quality of your sight, boost skin health, strengthen the immune system, prevent cancer, manage symptoms of diabetes, build strong bones, protect heart health, reduce symptoms of insomnia, prevent inflammatory conditions, treat arthritis, eliminate ulcers, eliminate parasites and infections, increase prostate health, protects against birth defects, boosts respiratory health, and reduces blood pressure.
Squash is a very interesting vegetable, because it is actually a broad term that encompasses a number of different types of vegetables, including pumpkins, zucchinis, courgettes, and marrows. They have a number of overlapping characteristics, and belong to the genus Cucurbita. The individual species include dozens of varieties, including buttercup squash, hubbard squash, cushaw squash, pumpkins, acorn squash, summer squash, zucchini, autumn squash, and winter squash. In North America, most of the varieties are simplified into either summer squash or winter squash. These classifications depend on when the squashes ripen, and what flavor and health benefits the user is trying to achieve. Squash also include gourds, of which there are many different classifications as well.
Not only is it one of the largest groups of vegetables, they are also some of the oldest cultivated crops on earth, with archaeological data tracing their origins back to 10,000 years ago in Mesoamerica. They were famously one of the Three Sisters crops that were cultivated by Native Americans, who eventually shared them with European settlers. These three vegetables were commonly grown together, and included corn (maize), beans, and squash. They provided the staple elements of the diet of that early American culture, and a number of other cultures throughout the region.
When it comes to culinary applications, squash is extremely flexible, and is commonly used as an element of salads when fresh, or they can be cooked as baked vegetables with meat, flattened into patties, fried, or included as a base flavor for soups. The seeds of squash are also edible, and can be made into a number of different forms or the oils an be extracted. The shoots and tendrils of squashes can also be eaten as greens in a salad. The question is, what is so important about squash, and why should we add it to our diet?
Nutritional Value of Squash
The impressive health benefits of squash are derived from the organic compounds, nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that they contain. This list includes a huge amount of vitamin A, as well as significant amounts of vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin B6, niacin, thiamin, pantothenic acid, and folate. In terms of minerals, squash contain magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper, phosphorous, calcium, and iron. They are also a very good source of carotenoids and other important anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds.
Let’s explore how these components impact human health, and what benefits can be enjoyed by adding squash to our diet!
Health Benefits of Squash
Immune System Health: Squash is an important source of many nutrients, including vitamin C, magnesium, and other antioxidant compounds. These vitamins and minerals are important antioxidant components in the body, which help to neutralize free radicals throughout the body. Free radicals are the natural, dangerous byproducts of cellular metabolism, and they have been connected with a wide swath of illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, and premature aging. Furthermore, squash contains very high levels of vitamin A, including carotenoid phytonutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin. All of this together helps the body to boost its immune response and defend against the foreign substances, as well as the free radicals produced by our own body, that may do us harm over the long term.
Managing Diabetes: Proper, regulated metabolism of sugar in the body is the best way to manage the symptoms of diabetes, a disease which afflicts millions of people all around the world. Squash is a great source of B-complex vitamins, all of which are essential in that metabolic activity. Furthermore, certain types of squash contain good amounts of dietary fiber, including the polysaccharide known as pectin. Pectin is an essential element in blood sugar regulation throughout the body, making sure that the insulin and glucose activities within the body remain constant and smooth. This ensures proper function of different organ systems, and a reduction in the plunges and peaks that can make diabetic life so difficult.
Anti-Inflammatory Capacity: Although talking about inflammation usually includes a discussion of arthritis or gout, inflammation can occur throughout the body, and is often a symptom of other conditions, like a fever that is a signal of an infection attacking the body. The anti-inflammatory activity of squash is due to the presence of omega-3 fatty acids, carotenoids like lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-carotene, as well as somewhat unusual anti-inflammatory polysaccharides called homogalacturonan. Although anti-inflammatory affects can certainly extend to arthritis and gout, studies on squash have specifically linked its impact to reducing gastric and duodenal ulcer reduction, as well as to general anti-inflammation of the cardiovascular system. Inflammation in the body is also closely linked to type-2 diabetes, yet another way that squash can help those suffering from that condition.
Antiseptic, Antimicrobial, Antifungal Activity: The natural immune-boosting ability of squash is great for general illness, but specific toxins and foreign bodies can also cause serious health issues. However, as we mentioned in the introduction, the seeds of squash can also be eaten or chewed to get a number of health benefits. These seeds have been directly connected to antiparasitic, antimicrobial, and antifungal activity within the body, protecting us from a wide variety of terrible diseases, including tapeworms and other intestinal parasites.
Lung Health: The vitamin in highest quantities within squash is vitamin A, and studies have linked vitamin A to a reduction in emphysema, particularly for those people who are consistently exposed to carcinogens like cigarette smoke. There is also an important carotenoid called beta-cryptoxanthin that has been linked to a reduction in the occurrence of lung cancer. Lung cancer is one of the most common forms of this terrible disease, so an increase in foods that contain vitamin A can be a very important protective element.
Neural Tube Defects: Squash has significant levels of folate, which has long been known as an essential vitamin for pregnant women. Folic acid, or folate, is integral in developing the neural aspects of infantile health. Neural tube defects have been directly linked to a deficiency in folic acid, so adding squash to your diet is always a good idea.
Cardiovascular Health: The magnesium and potassium present in squash combine to form a very effective defensive line against cardiovascular issues. Potassium is a vasodilator, which means that it relaxes the tension of blood vessels and arteries, thereby increasing blood flow and reducing the stress on the heart. This also increases oxygenation of the body’s various organ systems and improves function. The fiber, including pectin, found in squash is very good at scraping excess cholesterol from the walls of arteries, thereby reducing the chances of atherosclerosis, heart attacks, and strokes. Finally, the high levels of folate in squash are able to neutralize harmful levels of homocysteine that builds up in the body. Homocysteine has been positively linked to a seriously increased chance of developing cardiovascular diseases.
Asthmatic Conditions: The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of squash have been linked to a reduction in asthmatic conditions, primarily because the irritation that causes asthma can be eliminated by eating a diet high in squash.
Blood Circulation: Many different varieties of squash have high levels of iron and copper, which are both essential components of red blood cells. What this means is that with enough squash in your diet, you can reduce your chances of developing anemia (iron deficiency) and you can generally increase circulation within your bloodstream, which can increase oxygenation, brain function, and overall energy levels.
Eye Health: It may be hard to believe, but a single serving of squash can contain more than 400% of your daily requirement for vitamin A, due to the massive amounts of beta-carotene that are found in squash. Beta-carotene can actually be split by an enzyme to form vitamin-A, but the body will only convert as much as is necessary. In other words, eating squash will give you body all the vitamin A it needs, with plenty of beta-carotene to spare. Beta-carotene is an antioxidant compound that is essential for good eye health. High levels of beta-carotene have been connected with reduced chances of macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma, and other vision issues.
Bone Health: The high levels of essential vitamins found within squash make it a very important part of developing bone matter and bone mineral density. Squash is a valuable source of zinc, calcium, manganese, and other very important trace elements. This can help reduce your chances of developing osteoporosis as you age, and ensure strength and durability for your bones.
A Few Words of Caution: There are so many wonderful benefits of squash, but it is important to recognize some of the potential problems. As a strong agent to reduce blood pressure, someone with hypotension should avoid vegetables like squash, since it can lower your blood pressure to a dangerous level. Other than that, enjoy the many health benefits of squash in all your seasonal meals!